First, a note about spoilers: I will do my best not to give away any of the major plot points or exciting discoveries in this review. Apart from talking about plot points you discover in the first few minutes of the game, I hope it remains spoiler-free.
I played the hell out of the original God of War trilogy on the PS2/PS3, and I thought the games were equal parts challenging and enjoyable. But when I first saw the trailer for God of War (2018), I knew this game was on a whole other level. It’s a perfectly logical progression for the series: having dissassembled the entire Greek pantheon of Gods, Kratos escapes to far-away lands. There he finds something he never hoped to know again: love. He settles down with a woman and they share many happy years together. They start a family, and Kratos names his son Atreus.
Things never last forever though, and the game starts with preparing Faye’s funeral pyre, and then gathering her ashes for her final request: to spread them on the highest peak in the realms. Kratos and Atreus set out on their quest, uncertain how to get along together, but trying in respect of Faye’s memory. The Norse gods don’t take too kindly to an outsider on their turf, and our protagonists get into all kinds of trouble with them.
For the first time in the series, Angry Dude Kratos is travelling with someone he cares about, and his slowly unfolding relationship with Atreus brought me to tears and laughter many times. There were so many pivotal moments in their quest together where they experienced great vulnerability with one another, and there was nothing more rewarding than seeing them learn what it means to love.
One of the central themes of GoW is the war (forgive me) that wages inside of Kratos. Though he’s travelled far to escape his past, he has never truly forgotten it. In fact, as wonderful as his new life is, he sees it as a self-imposed exile where he can live out his days without doing any more harm to anyone. As their quest takes unexpected turns, Kratos is forced to face the life he tried to leave behind, the life that never really left him. The weight of his godhood shifted the balance of things in Midgard, and the consequences lead Kratos to contemplate whether he’ll ever be more than just a monster whose only skill is death. He longs desperately to break the cycle, and through Atreus he begins to believe that he might.
Despite only having one real weapon, the combat in God of War was by far the best it’s ever been. Using the Leviathan Axe was incredibly satisfying, and it was surprisingly versatile as I learned to switch between than many unlockable skills that it came with. Even bare-handed, Kratos’ attacks had a weight to them, where each punch, each thud of the axe really felt like it had some heft. It was exquisite mastering the combat, chaining together combinations, runic attacks, summons, stuns and finishers in a bloody and intricate dance. I really enjoyed the combat challenges that I accessed by unlocking other realms, and my favourite moments in the game (apart from the poignant story-telling) were encountering bosses and spending up to an hour learning to fight them until I could sufficiently read their attacks and respond appropriately. In these fights, the game punished me for just spamming the attack button, and required me to truly master the arts of dodging, parrying and knowing when to press the attack and when to retreat.
Those fights were a lot tougher than they needed to be though. The game has a curious levelling system that increases your level depending on what gear you have equipped. Despite being able to access high-level combat challenges quite early in the game, they were ridiculously hard until I’d progressed the story enough to start finding higher-level enchantments from chests and enemies. Neither could I upgrade my existing equipment any further: I didn’t have access to the resources I needed until I’d progressed further in the world. While I can see the benefits of getting players to go back and forth between story missions and side quests, it clashed with my completionist mind-set, and I wish they hadn’t made such challenges available so early if they would be impossible to complete.
Speaking of completionism, there was so much to discover and enjoy; chests, artifacts, rare resources, buried treasure, and so much lore. I poured over every nook and cranny of the world, and I loved every second of it. Midgard had so many secrets, and many of them were so cleverly hidden that it brought a great sense of achievement to uncover them. Somehow the puzzle-solving continued to impress me with its freshness and originality, despite this being the eighth game in the series.
Something else that must be mentioned is the incredible score. Ever since that first announcement at E3, it’s been abundantly clear how passionate the developers are in taking the music seriously, and they did an outstanding job. In particular, hearing the classic God of War theme weave its way into pivotal story moments gave me chills. (That, and hearing the thunderous voice of a certain giant was inexpressibly awesome. I am so glad that I found PS Gold Wireless Headset in an op shop, because the special sound mode the devs created for God of War made the aural experience 10x better.)
God of War (2018) is one of the greatest games I have ever played. I couldn’t believe how much I came to care for the characters – I even rewatched my favourite cutscenes on YouTube just to relive the thrilling elation and the depths of despair. And (I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned this yet), it’s an absolutely gorgeous game, with a brilliantly cinematic camera style and transitions so smooth I sometimes didn’t realise that I was in control again. I felt compelled to pause the game just to take in the breathtaking vistas, and I’ve never taken so many screenshots of a PlayStation game in all my life. This game deserves every accolade and award it’s received, and I hope many more people get to experience this incredible piece of interactive art. 10/10.